Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A bit of Scottish History, Duct tape, and Velvet Gowns

It's alive!!

After a hiatus of nearly a year, this blog is being re-born. Life got a little crazy for a bit, but I have vowed to breathe new life into this, my long neglected cyber-offspring. For future posts, I've decided to make an effort to post shorter, more frequent offerings, in order to make things less intimidating, both for the writer (me) and the reader (you). But to make up for the long spell of silence, I offer you the following ramble:

Have I mentioned that my current WIP (that's work-in-progress in writer-speak) takes place in 10th century Scotland?

So tell me, what was I thinking? Really?

Before I started this endeavor I knew nothing about medieval Scotland (or Alba in the Scottish Gàidhlig). Nothing. I may have thought I knew something but I was wrong, tremendously wrong. So, to rectify1 the colossal2 holes in my grasp of Scottish history, I’ve been doing research on Medieval Scotland. I’ve checked out various books from our local library system’s limited resources and I’ve delved3 into the contents of countless websites, printing and sorting and filing reams of documents describing everything from the typical diet, to local flora and fauna, to the most popular medieval Gàidhlig names.

In support of my hobby (okay, obsession) my husband recently gifted me with the digital copy of a 1909 publication entitled The History of Scotland: Its Highlands, Regiments and Clans by one James Browne, LL.D (which signifies4 a Doctor of Law - I Googled it). It looks like it’s going to be a fantastic resource, although I confess that I haven’t gotten very far into it. In fact, I’m still working my way through the foreword. And speaking of the foreword, if you’ll bear with me I’d like to give you a little taste of it. Here are the first three sentences of said foreword:

Notwithstanding5 the researches of the learned to trace the origin of nations and the descent and progress of the different branches of the great human family, as found at the dawn of history, it must be confessed that the result has been far from satisfactory, and that many of the systems which have been proposed are built upon the most gratuitous6 and chimerical7 hypotheses. By a comparison of languages, however, considerable light has been thrown upon the affinities8 of nations; but beyond these philological9 investigations, everything becomes vague and uncertain. Some modern writers, particularly amongst the Germans, with that unfortunate latitudinarianisms10 of interpretation which distinguishes...

What? Oh, sorry, I dozed off there.

What’s wrong with me? I mean, look at all the big, beautiful words in there! You would think that reading this would be the highlight of my week, or at least my day. In fact, as much as I adore such sumptuous11 vocabulary, you’d think I’d be ready to get down on one knee and propose marriage to Mr. James Browne, LL.D. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, the certain likelihood that Mr. Browne is moldering in a grave somewhere, not to mention the fact that I’m already happily married and I’m not sure where on earth polyandry12 might actually be legal.) I mean really, a word like latitudinarianism alone is enough to send shivers of pleasure down my spine.

So what’s the problem? Well, I hate to give him too much credit, but I think my younger brother put it rather succinctly13 in a bit of email correspondence: “Personally, I think offering a reader a rich vocabulary is rather like serving-up tofu for dinner. It's good for them - definitely. They really will find it tasty, too, if properly prepared. The trick is avoiding those big, obvious bites: often a bit awkward going down.”

Simply put, the passage above (and the rest of the foreword I’ve waded through thus far - there are 90 pages of foreword, for heavens sake) doesn’t just offer you the tofu (or choice vocabulary) in little, savory14 bites. No, it shoves big chunks down your throat until you feel as if you might choke on it.

Granted, the work in question is non-fiction, which often invites a certain degree of highfalutin language. Fair enough. But I’d argue that even for non-fiction this tome15 is going to take a bit of chewing to get it down.

Lesson of the day: Go ahead and spice up your writing with some robust, succulent16 words, but for heaven’s sake, don’t force your poor readers to choke down an entire meal’s worth with every bite.

1Rectify.  Problem? Never fear, there’s nothing that a good word, a little hard work, a bandaid, or some duct tape can’t fix. I am not going to mention that this word sounds vaguely naughty, like something that would make a middle-schooler giggle. I will take the high road here.

2Colossal.  Are any of you comic book fans? Well, I confess only a mild interest in the Marvel universe or the worlds described in DC Comics, but both my husband and youngest son are comic book geeks. As a result, I’ve watched a number of the recent films based on the exploits of various comic book heroes, including both Fantastic Four movies. Before the second Fantastic Four movie came out, my husband took it upon himself to provide me a detailed account of the Silver Surfer’s arrival on earth, which heralded the impending arrival of Galactus. For those of you who didn’t see the movie, or read the comics, let me tell you that you do not want Galactus to stop in for a visit. This guy is huge; so huge, in fact, that it challenges the mind’s ability to grasp the pure immensity of him. And what do you feed a fellow like Galactus? Steak and Potatoes? Nope. Planets. Yep, he’s that big.

3Delve.  Moles are really good at this. And gravediggers. And detectives. It helps to have a shovel, or a talent for unearthing secrets.

4Signify.  Just stick a hyphen in the middle of this one, like so: Sign-ify. Tells you all you need to know. Want to explain what something means or why it’s important? Just stick a sign on it. Okay, so these signs aren’t usually the sort you can actually touch, they’re more like the idea of a sign, but they still do the job.

5Notwithstanding.  Well, that might be true, but still...

6Gratuitous.  What’s that? It’s free? I don’t have to work for it, or even deserve it? It’s just mine for the taking? Sounds good to me.

7Chimerical.  I saw a goat with a lion’s head the other day. Really. Okay, I only caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but I know I saw it.

8Affinity.  There are different ways of looking at this one. On the one hand, it could express the passion I feel for my husband. Or it could describe my fondness for the color green and the music of Matchbox 20. Or, alternatively, it could be summed up by a conversation: “So, your mother is my husband’s second cousin? Does that mean we’re related?” Suffice it to say that this word really gets around; it even makes appearances in the field of chemistry, describing an attractive force between atoms. I guess you could sum it up by saying it portrays an attraction, or bond, of some sort.

9Philological.  Once upon a time there was a certain word, and it spent its youth in the bounteous land of Latin before wandering through the Indo-European realms and then dwelling for a time in French, before finally settling down in a cozy little English verb. And there are so many other words, big and little, whose beginnings, both humble and grand, can be traced back through a string of languages and dialects to the misty beginnings of human speech. This word makes it its business to know all about the history of those other words.

10Latitudinarianism.  Don’t let this word’s imposing presence fool you; this big fellow is everyone’s buddy. Regardless of your religious beliefs, sexual orientation, hair color, skin color, shoe size, or political view, he’s going to pull up another stool at the bar and buy you a drink. Yeah, he’s just that kind of guy.

11Sumptuous.  This word is like a velvet gown, hand-embroidered with silk flowers and beaded with fresh water pearls. It hangs in supple, shimmering waves to the floor and flows out behind the wearer in an opulent tide. This is the kind of gown a queen would wear, or a Hollywood starlet at the Academy Awards.

12Polyandry.  Meet the Polygamy twins: Polyandry and Polygyny. They might share many common traits, but these two are by no means identical. Although both encourage large households with more than the traditional parenting duo, Polyandry’s habit of collecting multiple husbands tends to earn her more disapproving looks than Polygyny’s penchant for marrying more than one woman. And while Polygyny has been widely popular through the ages, poor Polyandry has been largely ignored by all save a few, mostly fringe groups. I could make some sort of comment about this disparity probably having something to do with the fact that no woman should ever have to clean up after more than one man, but that would be bad, and probably sexist, and...bad. So, I won’t say anything of the sort, especially since I am married to a man (yes, just one) who is quite good at cleaning up after himself.

13Succinctly.  What, you want me to get to the point? No circuitous verbal ramblings? No tangential asides? Um...I don’t think I can do that.

14Savory.  Imagine a serving of salmon, seasoned with a little lemon, along with some garlic, pepper and rosemary. Throw in a side of roasted baby red potatoes, brushed with olive oil and seasoned with garlic and rosemary. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. And while it may not be sweet, it sure is tasty.

15Tome.  I have many, many of these. They perch on shelves, sometimes two or three deep, in my living room, family room, even dining room. They’re heavy, they take up a lot of space and they collect an inordinate amount of dust, but when you crack them open the whole universe comes spilling out.

16Succulent.  See that wedge of fresh pineapple there? Yeah, that’s right, take a bite, you know you want one. Oh, you might want to have a napkin handy, unless you like the feeling of pineapple juice in your navel.

No comments: